Giving thanks to health care workers on this unique Thanksgiving Day

To say 2020 has been a challenging year would be quite an understatement.  However, difficult times present an opportunity for us to focus on the aspects of our lives that are truly important. For many of us, the most important things are the relationships in our lives — our friends, colleagues and family. The people in our lives help us to cope and give us hope during the darkest days.

Today, we celebrate what will be a unique Thanksgiving Day for most of us. COVID-19 has significantly affected all of our lives. Some of our homes will be filled with the searing pain of missing loved ones who have succumbed to this terrible virus. The rest of our homes will be missing many of the family and friends for whom we are so grateful in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Yes, this will be a unique Thanksgiving Day.

We don’t just celebrate Thanksgiving when times are good. When we have gratitude, no matter what our circumstances, it helps build resilience and hope to get us through life’s challenges. There is something within the human spirit that makes us persevere, care for others and look forward to better times.

It has been less than a year since we first heard of COVID-19. Since then, however, more than 300,000 New Jerseyans have contracted the virus and nearly 15,000 have died during this pandemic. In response, health care workers and other front line personnel in New Jersey have inspired us with their courage, compassion and commitment to caring for those inflicted with this deadly disease.

Despite their fear of catching COVID-19 or transmitting it to their loved ones, New Jersey health care workers and frontline personnel went into the burning building every day during the first wave of the pandemic when we knew very little about the virus. They were the first line of defense for the nation and gave us hope. Additionally, they taught us all what it means to truly serve others.

Many people have lauded health care workers as “heroes,” and rightly so. Every one of the doctors, nurses, technicians, pharmacists, environmental services, food services and security teams that went to work, despite the unknown, and helped keep our hospitals open met the dictionary definition of a hero as “one who shows great courage.”

Though we are all tired of the pandemic and disappointed that the number of cases is on the rise, we can also be thankful for the news that promising vaccines may be available in weeks. We can also be grateful this week that we live at a time when medical professionals and researchers are able to quickly understand a new virus and work to develop medicines and vaccines to combat it. We pray that the vaccine will meet its promise and allow us to return to some semblance of normal.

This Thanksgiving Day, please take a moment to give thanks for all of them as they continue to be called upon in this second wave we are experiencing. If you know any frontline worker in health care, or at your local grocery store, or a researcher working on treatments and vaccines, go out of your way to thank them. They deserve it and I’m sure they could use the encouragement, especially now.

Yes, this will be a unique Thanksgiving Day, but we can still give thanks for those who are willing to serve others, even when it’s terrifying to do so. We wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. Stay safe by physically distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands often to keep those around you healthy and out of the hospitals. Our health care workers will be grateful for you doing your part. And, to our health care workers across New Jersey — thank you.

Kevin O’Dowd and Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli are co-CEOs of Cooper University Health Care, the leading academic health system in South Jersey.